A ‘Pearl Harbor in politics’: LBJ’s stunning decision not to seek reelection

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Lady Bird Johnson and President Lyndon B. Johnson review the text of the speech delivered by the president on March 31, 1968. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

On March 31, 1968, as he prepared for a diplomatic trip to Mexico, Vice President Hubert Humphrey heard someone knocking at the door to his apartment.

It was his boss, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Returning from church with his daughter, Luci, and son-in-law, Patrick Nugent, the president stopped by to talk about a speech he planned to make that evening, Humphrey recalled in his memoir, “The Education of a Public Man: My Life and Politics.”

While Humphrey’s wife, Muriel, chatted with the Nugents, the president and vice president, accompanied by White House Chief of Staff James R. Jones, retreated to Humphrey’s den. Johnson produced two drafts of the speech he would deliver.

Humphrey reacted with astonishment as he perused the texts. “I could barely believe what I was reading,” Humphrey wrote. “One of them had Lyndon Johnson withdrawing from the 1968 election.”

Johnson put his finger to his lips to signify that Humphrey was to tell no one, Jones wrote in the New York Times in 1988. Johnson told Humphrey he hadn’t decided which version to use but advised the vice president to start thinking about his own political future, according to Jones.

“Don’t mention this to anyone until Jim calls you in Mexico tonight,” Johnson, referring to his chief of staff, told Humphrey. “But you’d better start now planning your campaign for president.”

Johnson had delivered plenty of significant addresses during his presidency, from vowing in 1964 to build a “Great Society” to pushing for the Voting Rights Act in 1965. None of them came with the stunning conclusion of the speechtelevised that evening from the White House.

With Americans growing weary of the Vietnam War and increasingly discontent with his leadership, Johnson — in his characteristically solemn style — reiterated why the United States was fighting there and offered an olive branch to North Vietnam. He announced a halt to air and naval attacks north of the area immediately above the demilitarized zone and urged the Communist government in Hanoi to enter peace talks.

“We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations,” the president said.

That pronouncement — significant enough by itself — was overshadowed by what came at the end of the speech.

“I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year,” Johnson said. “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

It was an extraordinary decision by the canny Texas Democrat who had assumed the presidency after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and then was elected in 1964 in a landslide over Republican Barry Goldwater.

Benjamin Spock, the best-selling pediatrician and outspoken critic of the war, doubted its sincerity. Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.) called it “a courageous and heroic act which will mark him as one of history’s great men.” Rep. Wright Patman (D-Tex.) called it a “Pearl Harbor in politics.”

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